Source: The Herald

Editorial Comment

February 24, 2006

The US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is "something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected". That is the dictionary definition of "anomaly", the carefully chosen morally neutral term our prime minister insists on using to describe a facility where close to 500 men continue to be held in a legal limbo that would not be out of place in a novel by Franz Kafka. Though the US government denies using torture there to extract intelligence, there have been numerous allegations about the mistreatment of inmates, including new evidence yesterday that the FBI had grave misgivings about US military degrading interrogation techniques. Pressed on the issue yesterday, Tony Blair said he thought the arrangement "should end sooner rather than later". This is the first time he has used the verb "end" – previously he said "deal with". Charitable observers with musical inclinations might describe this barely discernible crescendo as a move from "sotto voce" to "pianissimo", the equivalent of virtually inaudible to very soft.

The Commons foreign affairs committee, reporting on the subject yesterday, would like the prime minister's overtures to be considerably louder. The implication in his restrained statements is that the matter is being raised with the White House privately. However, it is now more than four years since the first prisoners arrived, blindfolded, shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits, at the US base in eastern Cuba and not one of them has faced a single criminal charge. The Commons committee correctly observes that if nothing happens when you whisper, it is time to raise your voice.

Other members of the cabinet have used more forceful language. Last week Jack Straw went as far as to describe Guantanamo as a "gulag", the term applied to the notorious Soviet forced-labour camps. But on the global political stage, Britain will be judged by what the prime minister does or does not say about Guantanamo. Each time the issue is raised with him, Mr Blair stresses the context in which "the anomaly" arose post-9/11 and the anger felt by the American people, but as September 2001 recedes into the past and nobody is brought to trial, that justification becomes increasingly spurious. Two wrongs never make a right. Besides, the likelihood is that the men held at Guantanamo Bay were never more than enemy foot soldiers in the war on terror. Intelligence they might have furnished is likely to be out of date by now.

The values America claims to stand for, based on human rights and respect for the rule of law, are explicitly undermined by holding unnamed men on unspecified charges for years on end and by calling them "enemy combatants" to deny them the protection afforded by the Geneva Convention. Only by closing Guantanamo can America show the world that it accepts universal values. By appearing oblivious to criticism of the facility, it sends the message that America does what it damn well pleases and the near silence of our prime minister makes us all complicit. It is high time Britain turned up the volume on this issue.

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